Sleek black BMWs, sporty coupes and vintage automobiles queue up along its winding streets. Famous racing aficionados such as Tom Cruise and Ashley Judd may be spotted around town. Yet despite these flashes of glamour and a storied history as a resort town, Elkhart Lake, Wis., exudes a warm, relaxed vibe.
Flip-flop-clad families meander along downtown’s tight warren of streets, paths and stairs, colorful beach towels trailing behind them. Couples lazily paddleboard in the lake, pausing to wave at pontoon boats filled with margarita-sipping passengers. Cyclists pedal around town on feather-light triathlon bikes and chunky cruisers alike.
So if you like the idea of a resort town without pretension and fuss, Elkhart Lake is the spot for you. Here’s where to play, eat and sleep.
Experiencing the eponymous lake is a must. Enjoy coffee or a meal on the shore. Wade or take a dip in the lake, which is one of Wisconsin’s clearest and boasts a sandy bottom. If you’re staying at the Osthoff Resort or the Shore Club, you can enjoy the lake from a private sand beach. Otherwise, head for Fireman’s Park, a village hot spot, with a beach, concession stand, picnic facilities and sand volleyball court.
More adventurous folks can rent canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, pontoon boats, hydro-bikes and paddleboats. Watersports on Elkhart (1-920-377-0339; elkhartwatersports.com) also offers water skiing, wakeboarding and tubing excursions. For a fee, they provide the boat, driver, instruction and equipment. On Sundays, motorized watercraft are prohibited on the lake, giving silent watersports fans a chance to enjoy wake-free waters.
Opened in 1955, the 4-mile-long Road America racing course winds around Wisconsin’s undulating landscape. Famed for its challenges, including 14 turns, the track draws some 800,000 visitors annually from around the globe. But you don’t have to be a racing fan to enjoy the scenic course.
Monday and Wednesday evenings in the summer, Road America is open to the public for walking, running and biking. A disc golf course tucked into its sprawling acreage is also available then. On select weekends from June through October, guests may drive their cars or motorcycles on the track, following a pace car at a leisurely speed. More daring folks can visit during a Pace Car Hot Lap event and sign up to ride in a race car driven by a pro at high speeds (1-920-892-4576; roadamerica.com).
Hiking and biking
Pick up a recreation map at the Elkhart Lake Visitor Center, which outlines a variety of local trails. Hikers can easily access two different segments of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, while cyclists can pedal along the Road America course that runs through the village and its outskirts. Mountain bikers can head to nearby northern unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest for miles of trail (dnr.wi.gov).
Elkhart Lake doesn’t have a bevy of boutiques, but the ones in town are well-curated. Two Fish Gallery (1-920-876-3192; twofishgallery.net), tucked into a colorful, mission-style bungalow, sells an array of fine art, fine craft and fair trade items: jewelry, ceramics, paintings and sculptures. Outside, a lush backyard sculpture garden is open to visitors even when the gallery is closed.
Nordic Accents (1-920-876-2520) features classic and modern Scandinavian imports, such as Norwegian sweaters, Danish iron and Troentorp clogs. Vintage Elkhart Lake (1-920-876-4846; vintageelkhartlake.com) sells more than 250 types of wine from around the world, each one chosen by its sommelier owner. It also offers craft beer, spirits, Wisconsin cheese, cigars and more. At Gina’s Fine Gifts and Framing, (1-920-876-2874; ginas giftsandframing.com), you’ll find everything from greeting cards and humorous refrigerator magnets to artisan jewelry and clothing.
If you’re in town on Saturday morning, don’t miss the Farmers & Artisans Market (elkhartlake.com). It’s small, but has eclectic offerings. In addition to fruits and veggies, you may be able to score designer cupcakes, Asian spring rolls, homemade crêpes and yard art.
For a small village, Elkhart Lake has a rich dining scene. Be prepared to wait in line at Off the Rail (1-920-876-4194; offtherailelkhartlake.com), a cafe tucked into the original railroad depot. It serves breakfast and lunch, specialty coffee and tea, plus deli items and homemade baked goods. The Paddock Club (1-920-876-3288; paddockclubelkhartlake.com) and Lake Street Cafe (1-920-876-2142; lakestreetcafe.com) are great spots to enjoy a juicy filet or seared scallops. Traditionalists should grab a sandwich at Siebkens’ Stop-Inn Tavern (1-920-876-2600; seiebkens.com) and take in its wealth of racing memorabilia.
The village is home to a wide variety of lodging, including inns, resorts and condos. The newly renovated Shore Club Wisconsin resort (1-920-876-3323; shoreclubwisconsin.com), previously Victorian Village, is perched on the lake and has a new Mexican cantina. The Osthoff Resort (1-855-671-6870; osthoff.com) is known for its Aspira Spa, while the Victorian Jay Lee Inn (1-920-876-2910; jayleeinn.com) is a solid choice for B&B lovers. Racing fans will enjoy Luxury Motor Courts (1-414-399-3964; luxury motorcourts.com), a collection of upscale and spacious lodging featuring modern kitchens, lounges and private garages.
Elkhart Lake is 320 miles west of the Twin Cities, between Green Bay and Milwaukee (elkhartlake.com).
Melanie Radzicki McManus of Sun Prairie, Wis., writes about adventure and travel.